To MOOC or Not to MOOC? Part 2: What’s Wrong with Free Online Education?

In the previous installment of our series about Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs), we discussed the enthusiasm surrounding the growing phenomenon of free online courses. Now, we look at the other side of the heated debate about the value MOOCs can provide. 

The Criticism of MOOCs

It’s perhaps unfair to label those who are less than enthusiastic about MOOCs as “against” them. Even the most outspDivideoken opponents do not question the value of lectures that expand worldviews and offer a basic introduction into complex subjects. However, they take issue with the promotion of MOOCs as an alternative to degree-level courses, fearing that exclusive, and expensive, Ivy League Universities will be allowed to dominate and dictate to less wealthy students across the country and worldwide, with public higher education suffering as a result.

Lecturer Karen Head blogged about her experience, and reported about the increased hours of work involved with free online courses. Citing planning, rehearsing, recording, post-production editing, and the unsatisfying experience of lecturing to a camera as downsides of the platform, she said “I crave the connection I have with students in a traditional course.” She also noted the difficulty of accurately assessing the work of thousands of students, with machine grading mechanisms “unable to provide substantive evaluation.”

New York Times contributor A.J. Jacobs stated that “while MOOCs are a great equalizer when it comes to students around the world, they are a great unequalizer when it comes to teachers.” He found the teacher-to-student interaction aspect of his MOOC experience to be by far the least satisfying, describing his “celebrity” professors as “only slightly more accessible than the Pope.”

One of the most authoritative — and brutal — deconstructions of the propaganda surrounding free online courses comes from Aaron Bady writing for The New Inquiry, who stated that MOOCs in their current format are “structurally devoted to pinning knowledge down like a butterfly, putting it on file, putting a price on it, and floating it on the market.” He quotes a letter from the philosophy department of San Jose State University on their reasons for turning down an edX MOOC on Justice from Harvard:

“In spite of our admiration for your ability to lecture in such an engaging way to such a large audience, we believe that having a scholar teach and engage with his or her own students is far superior to having those students watch a video of another scholar engaging his or her students…Teaching justice through an educational model that is spearheading the creation of two social classes in academia thus amounts to a cruel joke.”

Although this represents a particularly vehement opinion, the idea that less privileged students will learn by watching recordings of more privileged students attending lectures and interacting with professors is understandably a contentious one. Despite the admirable intentions of making education open to the masses, MOOC students will inevitably have a different experience than those enrolled in formal college courses.

Is this “different experience” necessarily as bad as the critics contend? Certainly, nothing could replace the value of direct interaction with a professor, or the quality of a smaller, more tightly knit cohort of students. But are MOOCs truly forcing those less privileged to settle for a second-rate education? Or are they simply opening up opportunities for an audience who otherwise would have never pursued a topic of study, or an advanced education entirely?

What do you think? Weigh in on the debate in our comments section below. Also, read more about how MOOCs work and check out Colorado State University’s upcoming free online courses here.

5 thoughts on “To MOOC or Not to MOOC? Part 2: What’s Wrong with Free Online Education?”

  1. Some very valid questions and concerns about MOOCs highlighted in this article. I certainly agree that the learning opportunity and experience is far better for students attending classes in a brick and mortar institution. However, for those who could never hope to raise tuition, I do believe it is better they have the MOOC opportunity to grasp onto if they are motivated to learn. For some, this could be a stepping stone into a world of greater opportunities.

  2. I don’t have a college degree but have attended many community college and state university courses. Logistics, life-stages, funding, relevancy, etc. prevented me from having a burning desire to obtain a degree. But I do love learning. I always wondered what the privileged class was learning at their Ivy League schools that made them hold themselves in such high esteem. The MOOCs have offered me the opportunity to look inside their world and learn something in the process… I think MOOCs are are great!

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